I hate “slave movies,” perhaps more than white Americans hate addressing the issue of slavery and the black shadows it casts on America and American history to this very day.
Not a day goes by in America where race doesn’t rear its ugly head, even in seemingly innocent encounters, even in a place as diverse (and segregated) as New York City. I have lost count of how many times, on the subway and on the crowded streets of New York City, I’ve made fleeting eye contact with a white woman and I see fear, and fantasy, play across her forehead like a small flat screen TV. You could chalk this up to my overly active imagination as a writer, or the fact that I am well-read and there are hundreds of years of plays and stories and movies and TV shows that play on this fear, and fantasy, think Othello the Moor; Aaron the Moor (from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus), Mandingo; Jack Johnson; Joe Christmas (from William Faulkner’s Light in August, which should be read alongside James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man); Bigger Thomas; Emmett Till; and The Exonerated Five (the NYC Central Park Jogger Case). I know what images flash across white women’s minds, because they flash across mine, too, because we have been conditioned to buy into all the stereotypes about each other, but mine is informed by the collective unconscious and all those voices in my head from Black men who hung from poplar trees, and the fact that Black and white in America share a history that spans hundreds of years of violence, most perpetrated against Black people by white people.
Using 1619 as a starting point of slavery in the “United States,” and 1865 as the end of slavery in the U.S., that’s 246 years of slavery. The nation itself is only 246 years old. Let’s then say that legal segregation began in 1877, at the end of Reconstruction, and “ended” in 1977, for the sake of argument, when Roots’ first episode aired on TV. That’s 100 years of Black dreams denied and destroyed. And the era of “mass incarceration” (hyper-incarceration), beginning in 1968 and ending in 2000, I’ll leave for another time.
Roots, by Alex Haley, was published when America turned 200 years old, in 1976. If timing is everything, then it’s release was perfect. A year later, the miniseries aired to a record-breaking audience of 130 million viewers. This was probably the first time in American history that collectively Americans, Black and white, took an honest look at slavery and its legacy.
Given this legacy, and the times we currently live in, Roots should be re-read, and introduced to a new generation.
Although I hate “slave movies,” I love books. Roots opened up the idea of exploring my roots, and with the science of DNA, we can DNA time travel and get a sense of our ancestors.